The rise and fall of Colin Kaepernick, this death rattle of a career that not long ago breathed life into a slumbering 49ers franchise, has happened so swiftly, so harshly, Ron Jaworski hasn’t even had time to eat his words.
Before the 2013 season, the respected NFL analyst repeated his high praise of the athletic, long-limbed starter, suggesting Kaepernick “could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. I love his skill set.”
Well, so much for that. Another love affair bites the dust. Five years into his career, Kaepernick and the 49ers have failed to agree on a definition of the aforementioned skill set, to establish an effective balance between his exceptional scrambling ability and his powerful, if often imprecise right arm.
Does he run or does he pass?
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The 49ers don’t know, and no longer care. They have decided to punt.
2-6 Colin Kaepernick’s record as the 49ers’ starting quarterback this season before being benched
Before Blaine Gabbert ran onto CenturyLink Field on Sunday for his second start as the 49ers’ quarterback, general manager Trent Baalke tried to spin sweet somethings out of an ugly situation. After informing reporters that Kaepernick – who was benched after the Nov. 1 loss to the St. Louis Rams and placed on season-ending injured reserve Saturday – faced potential surgery on his left shoulder, he cautioned against jumping to conclusions. This was not necessarily, he insisted, the end of Kaepernick’s days with the 49ers.
“For me, where we stand right now,” Baalke said in the press box before the Seattle Seahawks defeated the 49ers 29-13, “I wouldn’t read too much into that.”
But realistically? In the modern era of professional sports? With salary caps and fiscal considerations increasingly significant?
You don’t need glasses to read the 49ers’ tea leaves. The organization’s thought process is an open book, with big, bold print. Kaepernick earns $11.9 million if he is on the roster April 1, so of course the 49ers want him healthy, eager, ready to go – ready to be traded elsewhere.
His demise and inevitable departure mean the scouts will pay extra attention to college quarterback prospects. The situation also presents Gabbert with an opportunity to win the job outright. The fact he is younger and cheaper enhances his appeal. That he was acquired via trade in March 2014 hints the front office already is at least somewhat intrigued by the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder from Missouri.
Known for his arm strength, accuracy and athleticism, he had his moments against the Seahawks, making quick decisions, escaping pressure and not telegraphing his throws. He completed 22 of 34 for 264 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought that Blaine and the poise he showed today was really good,” coach Jim Tomsula said. “He used his arm. He used his feet. He got himself out of some things. He kept his eyes down the field and made some plays. I’m not into moral victories, but that was encouraging.”
Not long ago, similar phrases were used to describe an emerging Kaepernick. Poise. Escapability. Strong arm. Big-play capability. A threat rolling out. An improving presence in the pocket. His dynamic, daring style provided different dimensions, contrasting sharply with those of the methodical, analytical Alex Smith, his 49ers predecessor who often was characterized as a quarterback who “manages” a game.
If Smith’s fall from grace was similarly swift, his ascension was several difficult years in the making. After enjoying the most effective stretch of his career under the departed Jim Harbaugh, he suffered a concussion and was replaced by his second-year backup, and once he recovered, he never reclaimed the starting job.
Harbaugh studied the larger picture and saw big-strike potential in Kaepernick. He didn’t want a manager; he wanted a star. He was convinced he could fix the flaws in his young quarterback’s elongated throwing motion, help him master the touch pass, instill the patience to go through his progressions, and accomplish all of this without destroying Kaepernick’s colt-like exuberance.
For a while, Harbaugh-Kaepernick was a win-win proposition. The deep, balanced 49ers came within a short run (instead of an errant throw into the end zone) of winning the 2013 Super Bowl, and a year later, they were denied a second chance at a championship by a spectacular deflection in the end zone by the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman.
$11.9 million Colin Kaepernick’s payday from the 49ers if he’s on their roster April 1
But the following season, everything changed. Injuries and off-the-field legal incidents diminished the roster. Harbaugh’s strained relationship with management was a chronic distraction. Kaepernick’s development not only stalled, it regressed. His quarterback rating dipped to a career low, the 49ers stumbled to 8-8, and Harbaugh took off for Michigan. Kaepernick returned to a team without any game-breaking receivers, without familiar figures Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Chris Borland, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, and with a well-liked but unproven head coach.
This most curious season of Colin Kaepernick thus ends with a shoulder injury and possible surgery, with a 2-6 record as a starter, with his benching in favor of Gabbert, and with the strong suspicion he has thrown his last football for the 49ers. If the future unfolds as anticipated, his tenure in the Bay Area will be remembered for its tremendous spike, and one very stunning, perplexing fall.
Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ailene_voisin